According to the NHS, around one in seven couples may have difficulty conceiving, equating to approximately 3.5 million people here in the UK.
For those who experience fertility issues, the psychological impact can really take its toll. A Harvard Medical School Mental Health letter article entitled ‘The psychological impact of infertility and its treatment’ cited a couple of studies. The first surveyed 200 couples seen consecutively at a fertility clinic and the second examined the responses of 488 American women who filled out a standard psychological questionnaire before undergoing a stress reduction programme.
The first study found that half of the women and 15% of the men felt infertility was the most upsetting experience of their lives, while the second concluded that women with infertility felt as anxious or depressed as those diagnosed with cancer, hypertension, or recovering from a heart attack.
In this feature, we speak to three of our practitioners about the potential benefits of acupuncture, nutrition and yoga when looking to conceive.
Acupuncture and fertility
According to the British Acupuncture Council (‘BAC’) website, research has found that acupuncture treatment can have a positive effect on those trying for a baby and can actually aid the conception process. Their website cites a 2004 study conducted by the Reproductive Medicine and Fertility Center in Colorado which found that 51% of women who underwent both IVF and acupuncture treatment at the same time became pregnant, while only 36% of those who only underwent IVF did.
The latter group also had higher rates of miscarriage and stillbirth (20%) compared to those women who had received acupuncture (8%). Acupuncture has also had benefits on male fertility with positive effects on sperm count, morphology and mobility.
The BAC list some of the potential beneficial effects of acupuncture on fertility as:
- Regulation of the menstrual cycle and hormones so that a larger number of follicles are produced
- Promotion of regular ovulation
- Improved ovary function – to produce better quality eggs
- Enhancements to the vitality of sperm
- Increased thickness of the uterine lining so to encourage successful implantation
- Reduction in the chance of miscarriage
- Relief from the side effects of drugs used in IVF.
“Acupuncture has a balancing effect by helping the body return to homeostasis. Metabolic imbalance disrupts the flow of our vital energies known in Chinese Medicine as Qi which is the current (i.e. electricity, power) that circulates blood throughout the body and nourishes the organs, tissues, muscles, tendons and bones”, says Gulshan Noorani, one of our in-house acupuncturists.
“Disruption of Qi and Blood can be caused by elements of our daily lives – for example, stress, emotional disturbances, insomnia, consumption of de-natured foods over a longer period and poor lifestyle choices such as lack of exercise, too much sitting, etc.
“Acupuncture needles stimulate neurohormonal pathways that send signals to the brain via fascia tissue and these nerve stimulations cause the brain to produce beta-endorphines and reduce production of pro-inflammatory mediators like TNF (tumour necrosis factor) and IL-b (interlukin-beta). By causing deep relaxation, acupuncture can improve the functioning of the para-sympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system to promote healing while pacifying the sympathetic (flight or fight) nervous system which is often over-stimulated causing disease.
“By supporting the body in general and metabolic and hormonal systems in particular, acupuncture provides regulation so that hormones are produced in the right way, at the right time to encourage ovulation and conception.”
Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny, disposable needles through the skin into points on the body’s meridians (‘energy lines’).
According to Gulshan, different methods and models of acupuncture may be used: “In Traditional Chinese Medicine a typical acupuncture treatment protocol may include points (bilaterally where applicable) on the abdomen focusing on the following meridians: Ren 6, Ren 4, Ren 3; possibly Stomach meridian: ST 29, 30; and extra-point Zi Gong, Yin Tang. On the arms, points may include: LI 4, PC 6, SJ 5 and on the legs; ST 36, SP 6, KD 3, LR 3.
“The Dr. Tan Balance Method focuses on balancing all the meridians to create a flow between them in promoting menstrual regularity and fertility. Fewer needles are used unilaterally. For example, if needling Yang meridian points on the right hand, then only Yang meridian points will be needled on the left leg, while Yin meridian points will be used on the left hand and right leg. This method creates a circuit of energy throughout the body.
“When using the Master Tung method, the practitioner identifies the major organ that is weak and deficient and chooses the points from the Master Tung 700 points system to create a protocol that will strengthen the organ(s) and correct the irregularity rather than focusing on the symptom. There are however some universally accepted points in the Tung system for gynaecology that can be used in all the above modalities. All methods work well and the protocol used will depend on the practitioner’s preference and knowledge.”
Nutrition and fertility
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that eating the right kind of foods and the avoidance of others can play a significant role in increasing fertility.
“The food you eat, what you drink, breathe, do, how stressed you are in the three to four months before planning to conceive, can all have a big impact on your fertility. This is true for both women and men as the egg and sperm used in conception are directly produced by the diet and lifestyle of both parents,” says nutritionist, Rivkah Maya.
“Nutrients from our diet are used by the body to produce hormones, repair and build cells and produce good quality eggs and sperm. A healthy conception and pregnancy depend on getting these nutrients in. If you make changes and eat a nutritiously dense and balanced diet prior to conception you are more likely to keep blood sugar levels balanced, which is important for allowing fertility hormones to work correctly, as is maintaining a healthy weight. The probability of conceiving is affected by being both over and under weight.”
Historically, issues with fertility may have been seen by some to be more of a “woman’s problem” – despite statistics that show male factors may be involved in a third of infertility cases. While the field of male diet and fertility is still in its relative infancy, the research linking male fertility to nutrition is compelling (source: Today’s Dietician).
“It’s vital that both people in the couple embrace making changes,” stresses Rivkah. “For women, the length of time is important because it takes around three months for immature eggs to mature and develop enough to be released at ovulation. For men, its equally important because sperm cells need this length of time to develop and prepare for ejaculation.
“You need this amount of time to raise nutrient levels in the body and reduce any toxins that may be present. This is key to giving eggs and sperm time to develop but also time to really boost their quality so conception has the best chance of being successful.”
Rivkah suggests that for at least three months prior to trying to conceive, a couple should focus on a balanced diet containing protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, green leafy vegetables in order to support blood sugar management, a healthy weight and healthy digestive system, as well as supply nutrients needed for fertility. Being properly hydrated is also crucial.
“Protein is vital for hormone production, supporting function of reproductive organs, repairing and building healthy cells as well as keeping blood sugars balanced. Protein should be eaten with every meal. Good quality sources include organic eggs, organic poultry or grass-fed red meat, oily fish, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds,” advises Rivkah.
“Complex carbohydrates are important for energy production and are a good source of minerals and vitamins needed for fertility. They are also rich in fibre which is critical for maintaining a healthy digestive system. This is responsible for ensuring old hormones and toxins are removed from the body so that hormones are balanced and we can absorb the nutrients from the food we’ve eaten. Food sources include vegetables, beans and pulses, quinoa, oats, rye, brown or wholegrain rice, pasta and bread.
“Healthy fats are pivotal for the healthy development of cells, hormone production, quality of sperm and ensuring the growth of a healthy baby. These ought to be eaten with every meal. Sources include nuts, seeds and their butters, oily fish (mackerel, sardines, trout, anchovies, salmon), olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, ghee and organic butter.
“Green leafy vegetables are also important for digestive health and liver support, and keeping hormones balanced. These include kale, spinach, spring greens, rocket, cabbage and chard.
“Lastly, water is not a food but crucial for fertility and overall health as it ensures that nutrients travel to the organs that need them, including the reproductive ones. It helps hormones communicate and keeps them balanced, aids with the removal of toxins from the body and can help with weight control. It is also an important component of both cervical fluid (needed for sperm to travel to the egg) and sperm itself. The quality of both will be affected if dehydrated. You should drink 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day but if you exercise, you will need more. The water you drink should be filtered tap water or mineral water from glass bottles as tap water can raise the likelihood of miscarriage as it contains heavy metals and other potential toxins.”
When it comes to foods that out to be excluded, Rivkah suggests avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates as these drain the body of vitamins and minerals needed for health and fertility, have no nutritional value, contribute to weight gain and cause issues with blood sugar levels. This in turn creates hormonal imbalances.
Also to be avoided are:
- Processed or trans fats – these interfere with the body’s ability to absorb healthy fats and can have a negative affect on cells needed for ovulation
- Larger fish – these have a larger capacity for storing heavy metals like mercury
- Caffeine – research suggests that drinking two or more cups of coffee a day increases the risk of miscarriages and has detrimental effects on sperm quality
- Alcohol – as it adversely affects both female and male fertility and can cause damage to the foetus
- Cow’s dairy – as this may increase levels of oestrogen in the body, causing hormonal imbalances.
It’s not just what we eat though but how we eat it and how our bodies digest it, explains Rivkah: “Eating mindfully is something to become aware of as this impacts how we digest our food. Digestion actually starts in the mouth and we are less likely to absorb nutrients from the food if we eat too quickly. Try eating slowly and chew your food until mush. This also gives your body time to recognise that you are full and makes you less likely to eat too much. To help keep blood sugar levels balanced, it is recommended we eat every three to four hours and always start the day with a protein rich breakfast.”
Another consideration is the environment of the food we are eating: how it has been grown, raised and packaged.
“Toxins from pesticides and plastics can create hormonal imbalances and adversely affect the production of sperm. Where possible, eat organic, particularly with meat, eggs, dairy, fruit and vegetables that cannot be peeled or those listed in the ‘dirty dozen’ for the current year. Avoiding the use of plastics to wrap foods and using glass bottles instead of plastic ones can also reduce your exposure,” advises Rivkah.
“Research also suggests that even though our diets may be rich in the foods that we need for fertility, intensive farming and depleted soils mean that these foods are nutrient depleted. There are key vitamins and minerals that are needed in higher levels for conception, so it is likely that good quality supplements (preferably recommended by a qualified practitioner) will be needed to get nutrient levels up to what is needed to balance hormones and produce healthy eggs and sperm.”
Yoga and fertility
There is research to suggest a correlation between difficulties conceiving and stress and anxiety – something yoga may be able to help alleviate. A research project conducted by the Fertility Centre of Illinois and Rush University Medical Centre saw a group of 103 IVF patients monitored over a six-week period, 54 of whom were invited to take part in weekly 45-minute sessions of Vinyasa style yoga and a control group of 49 who went about life as usual. Those participating in yoga lowered their anxiety levels by 20% over the period, compared with just 2% for the control group (source: Daily Telegraph – ‘Yoga could help women struggling to conceive’).
“Not only is yoga a great way to relieve stress and bring the body back into balance and alignment on a physical level, it can also be used on a biological level to reset the endocrine system and increase blood flow to areas like the reproductive organs. The endocrine system is responsible for hormonal balancing throughout the body and a specialised yoga practice may have a positive affect on how the glands that make up this system operate. It is well documented that yoga can decrease stress levels, encourage a more positive mind set and may increase sexual drive, all of which are beneficial to fertility,” says Simone Matus, who teaches pregnancy and postnatal yoga, as well as Vinyasa classes at Clerkenwellbeing.
“Interestingly, the seven chakras or energy centres run roughly along the same lines as the endocrine system. A yoga practice focusing on the opening up and releasing of these areas in the body is likely to have a similar affect on the glands that make up this system and therefore the hormones they produce. Poses such as Cobra, Bridge and Camel, which allow for a lengthening across the front body along the chakral line may be beneficial. Areas to focus on include the pelvic floor and belly which are situated around the Sacral Chakra often associated with abundance, well-being and pleasure, as well as the heart space or Heart Chakra which can bring inner-peace and love.”
Find out more
To find out more about how acupuncture may be able to aid with fertility or to book in and see Gulshan please call 020 7490 4042 or email us. To join one of Simone’s yoga classes, please go to the Clerkenwellbeing website. To find out more about nutrition and fertility or to book in and see Rivkah, please email her.